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There are cellphones, one or two fleeting acknowledgments of same-sex couples, and other signs of the 21st century in Blended, but in essence the latest Adam Sandler movie is as old-school a family rom-com as Yours, Mine and Ours (either version). Embodying the same wholesomeness that has informed most of his screen work, gross-out comedies included, it feels like a tentative next step in Sandler’s evolving screen persona, one that has gone from good-hearted dolt to bumbling man-child to middle-aged father. The feature reunites the actor with Drew Barrymore and director Frank Coraci, who helmed the leads’ first pairing, The Wedding Singer, nearly 20 years ago.
As in that film and their last outing, 50 First Dates, Sandler and Barrymore display an onscreen connection that lends a grounding warmth to the clunkiest comedy setups — in this case, a narrative that places two single parents on an African vacation as second date. Unenthusiastic reviews aside, the lead duo will be a strong draw for audiences who aren’t keen on superhero action of the X-Men variety.
The movie opens with a blind date between the two main characters that’s a disaster not just for them but for the audience, every intended joke landing with a thud. Sporting-goods salesman Jim, a widower, and freelance closet organizer Lauren, recently divorced, are just getting back into the dating game. Neither is trying especially hard when they get together at a Hooters — a seemingly damning choice of location for Jim, but one that screenwriters Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera later reveal to have sentimental meaning, without pushing the matter.
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However awful Lauren and Jim’s first meeting, it’s clear that these devoted parents are meant for each other, as their matching minivans attest. Their next run-in, a second-chance meet-cute at a drugstore, clicks as comedy and insightful dramatic development. He’s there for his teen daughter, Hilary (Disney Channel star Bella Thorne), whom the sports-minded Jim treats like an athlete of no particular gender persuasion, complete with unflattering barbershop do. In a kind of parental symmetry, Lauren is at the store to replace a girly magazine that she impulsively destroyed after discovering it under the bed of her older son (Braxton Beckham). Barrymore is especially good at conveying her character’s entangled feminist disgust and humanist forgiveness.
That winning scene aside, Coraci indulges in a bit too much stateside setup before the action shifts to its main setting, the African continent — to be precise, a mildly adventurous South African resort that might be called Africa Land or Africa World, and which feels like being stuck on an overprogrammed cruise. Jim, Lauren and their broods share a super-fancy suite with a view — the result of semiconvincing plot contortions involving a dashed romantic getaway for Lauren’s child-averse business partner (Wendi McLendon-Covey).
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Antagonists though they may be, they’re smack in the middle of the resort’s annual celebration of the blended family, a “familymoon” event that’s designed with lots of activities for kids and romantic opportunities for grownups. Avoiding the latter, Lauren and Jim keep busy on the family-friendly front. Amid such shrill escapades as a balloon crash-landing over a rhinoceros, they very predictably mentor each other’s children: Jim coaches the baseball-challenged Tyler (Kyle Red Silverstein), and Lauren coaxes the frustrated Hilary into a glamorous makeover. The kids, all well played, don’t interact as siblings; their main purpose is to represent facets of parenthood, both positive and negative.
The action is by turns insistently sunny and mawkish. Jim’s alternately sweet and, in a bit of overdone shtick, demonic youngest daughter (Alyvia Alyn Lind) instigates a “What do you miss about Mommy?” conversation, and his middle girl (Emma Fuhrmann) — who has the honor of being named Espn, after the cable network — still communes with her mother, insisting on a place for her at the dinner table.
Supporting roles are of the broadly drawn and mostly thankless sort. Kevin Nealon plays a middle-aged vacationer who’s blind to the tension between his cleavage-heavy young wife (Jessica Lowe) and his teenage son (Zak Henri). As the resort social director Mfana, Abdoulaye N’gom must deliver some corny lines with conviction. Stateside, Shaquille O’Neal is called upon to do some belly-dancing as Jim’s coworker, while Joel McHale fills the role of Lauren’s ex, a self-involved no-show dad whose every move only emphasizes Jim’s goodness.
The connect-the-dots proceedings get some much-needed punctuation — or interruption — from Terry Crews, who flexes (pectoral) muscle as the wide-eyed, ultra-exuberant lead singer of the resort’s Thathoo Harmony Group. Like all routines in the film, though, it repeats itself rather than venture into fresher and funnier territory.
Coraci, whose past outings with Sandler include Click and The Waterboy, keeps things moving but rarely gets a comic pulse revving. The production, shot in Georgia and South Africa by Julio Macat, with colorful design contributions from Perry Andelin Blake and Christine Wada, is solid, the most striking images being brief footage of animals encountered on the families’ safari — by far the wildest element in this family-friendly adventure.
Production companies: Gulfstream Pictures, Happy Madison
Cast: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Nealon, Terry Crews, Wendy McLendon-Covey, Bella Thorne, Joel McHale, Shaquille O’Neal, Braxton Beckham, Kyle Red Silverstein, Emma Fuhrmann, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Zak Henri
Director: Frank Coraci
Screenwriters: Ivan Menchell, Clare Sera
Producers: Mike Karz, Adam Sandler, Jack Giarraputo
Executive producers: Barry Bernardi, Josie Rosen, Tim Herlihy, Allen Covert, Steve Koren, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Perry Andelin Blake
Costume designer: Christine Wada
Editor: Tom Costain
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Rated PG-13, 117 minutes
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